What we got wrong about how things were going to go
What we’ve forgotten now about how things felt at the time
I appreciate you reading. Thanks as always.
Two years ago this week give or take a day or two was when most of us first started taking the idea of the pandemic seriously. Now it’s over and we don’t have to think about it anymore (?)
I didn’t actually read any of those stories so maybe it’s fine and we don’t have to pay attention. Congratulations and/or condolences to all of us.
I did read this piece last week though and while it’s rare these days that I’m going to suggest an article in the Atlantic Ed Yong is one of the good ones. It’s called Why America Became Numb to Covid Deaths and it starts like this:
The United States reported more deaths from COVID-19 last Friday than deaths from Hurricane Katrina, more on any two recent weekdays than deaths during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, more last month than deaths from flu in a bad season, and more in two years than deaths from HIV during the four decades of the AIDS epidemic. At least 953,000 Americans have died from COVID, and the true toll is likely even higher because many deaths went uncounted. COVID is now the third leading cause of death in the U.S., after only heart disease and cancer, which are both catchall terms for many distinct diseases. The sheer scale of the tragedy strains the moral imagination. On May 24, 2020, as the United States passed 100,000 recorded deaths, The New York Times filled its front page with the names of the dead, describing their loss as “incalculable.” Now the nation hurtles toward a milestone of 1 million. What is 10 times incalculable?
Many countries have been pummeled by the coronavirus, but few have fared as poorly as the U.S. Its death rate surpassed that of any other large, wealthy nation—especially during the recent Omicron surge. The Biden administration placed all its bets on a vaccine-focused strategy, rather than the multilayered protections that many experts called for, even as America lagged behind other wealthy countries in vaccinating (and boosting) its citizens—especially elderly people, who are most vulnerable to the virus. In a study of 29 high-income countries, the U.S. experienced the largest decline in life expectancy in 2020 and, unlike much of Europe, did not bounce back in 2021. It was also the only country whose lowered life span was driven mainly by deaths among people under 60. Dying from COVID robbed each American of about a decade of life on average. As a whole, U.S. life expectancy fell by two years—the largest such decline in almost a century. Neither World War II nor any of the flu pandemics that followed it dented American longevity so badly.
Every American who died of COVID left an average of nine close relatives bereaved. Roughly 9 million people—3 percent of the population—now have a permanent hole in their world that was once filled by a parent, child, sibling, spouse, or grandparent. An estimated 149,000 children have lost a parent or caregiver. Many people were denied the familiar rituals of mourning—bedside goodbyes, in-person funerals. Others are grieving raw and recent losses, their grief trampled amid the stampede toward normal. “I’ve known multiple people who didn’t get to bury their parents or be with their families, and now are expected to go back to the grind of work,” says Steven Thrasher, a journalist and the author of The Viral Underclass, which looks at the interplay between inequalities and infectious diseases. “We’re not giving people the space individually or societally to mourn this huge thing that’s happened.”
After many of the biggest disasters in American memory, including 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, “it felt like the world stopped,” Lori Peek, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies disasters, told me. “On some level, we owned our failures, and there were real changes.” Crossing 1 million deaths could offer a similar opportunity to take stock, but “900,000 deaths felt like a big threshold to me, and we didn’t pause,” Peek said. Why is that? Why were so many publications and politicians focused on reopenings in January and February—the fourth- and fifth-deadliest months of the pandemic? Why did the CDC issue new guidelines that allowed most Americans to dispense with indoor masking when at least 1,000 people had been dying of COVID every day for almost six straight months? If the U.S. faced half a year of daily hurricanes that each took 1,000 lives, it is hard to imagine that the nation would decide to, quite literally, throw caution to the wind. Why, then, is COVID different?
I don’t know! I don’t know anything.
After that I was reminded of this piece that Joe Keohane wrote for me in here in November of 2020 that I’ve shared before but I think is worth revisiting:
It’s been said before the Covid-19 exploited some key American vulnerabilities: an individualism that can be indistinguishable from pathological selfishness. A society that moves around a lot. And, of course, a government ruled by vandals, paranoids, and dead-enders. But for me one of the hidden vulnerabilities was our national addiction to a certain idea of heroism. James Baldwin wrote this about cops during a protest march: “There they stood in twos and threes and fours, in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces, totally unprepared, as is the way with most American he-men, for anything that could not be settled with a club, or a fist, or a gun.” The coronavirus crisis was incompatible with American hero mythology, with our idea of action. We simply did not have the psychological tools to cope with something that would not respond to violence, threats, or bombast. You couldn’t kick its ass, or root for the army to kick its ass, or even console yourself with fantasies of kicking its ass yourself--that sad but enduring Walter Mitty man-saves-the-day fantasy that I suspect provides much of the drive of the American male’s love for guns. No, with Covid there was no comfort in violent fantasy. You couldn’t do anything. You really could only do nothing. In fact, for the vast majority of us, nothing was the thing you had to do. And the country failed spectacularly, and 2020 feels like the year that will never end.
Maybe it never did.
Many of you will remember around that time I got a bunch of friends together to write something about the last days before Covid became a constant presence in our lives. I thought those too might be worth taking a look back at now on the two year anniversary to see what we got wrong about how things were going to go and what we’ve forgotten now about how things felt at the time.
Some of you have already read all of these lovely essays but a lot of you haven’t so feel free to skip today if this is all old news to you.
You can jump to each individual piece here below. Some of them are behind the paywall. For paying subscribers I’ve included a PDF you can download down below to read them all together on your tablet or whatever it is that you do.
The Last Normal Day:
Part 1 by Samantha Irby
Part 2 by Zaron Burnett III
Part 3 by Luke O’Neil
Parts 4-5 by Chris A. Smith and Shane Ferro
Part 6 by Kim Kelly
Part 7 by Julieanne Smolinski
Part 8 by Josh Gondelman
Part 9 by Jeb Lund
Part 10 by Joe Keohane
Part 11 by Linda Tirado
Part 12 by Aisha Tyler
Here’s a little story I wrote about a tweet I saw.
stoned to death by school children
Quiscalus quiscula versicolor
Boyd Elementary School, Fox Chapel, Pennsylvania 1980
We flew together in large flocks whistling and chattering and squeaking to one another of news and of nothing at all over large fields of corn ignoring the motionless human sentries meant to frighten us. We followed behind churning plows and foraged through their bountiful wake for worms and insects and mice and near water we plucked leeches off the backs of turtles who stared at us dumbly. We nested in trees nearer the humans and ate from their scraps which were plenty and the braver among us stole right from under their noses sometimes as much for sport as for sustenance. For this we were considered a nuisance. Some of us would raid the nests of smaller birds and even attack and eat them which I believe now is the sin for which I have been punished.
Laying in the grass one day letting the ants crawl over me to rid my newly molted feathers of mites and biting lice a group of children approached and I thought little of it. These children with stone in their hands and stone in their eyes and stone in their hearts. Later the ants returned.
I’ve been writing in here about the show Raised by Wolves a lot lately and in particular how the second season has been kind of a let down. The first season did exactly what it is that I want sci-fi to do which is to fill me with a sense of wonder. The second season is basically just some people running around.
So naturally I was very happy to see this piece by Jeff VanderMeer about how he’s been similarly disappointed.
Season 1 invested impressive thought and equally impressive execution in planetary details, but more importantly the ecosystems had their own agency and purpose that neither we nor the androids can fully comprehend. The creepy critters stalking the settlement work to their own agenda; the seasons care nothing for the settlement’s needs. Preserving a sense of areas unknown and unmapped lent depth and breadth to the worldbuilding and ensured that the planet itself became a kind of all-encompassing character.
The last episode of season 1, “The Beginning,” brought the planet’s fauna/ biotech to startling ultra-life, in the form of a winged flying serpent born of Mother’s body that conjured up the mythology of Dragon in ways useful to the Mithraic legend.
Other science-fiction shows like The Expanse, with its weirdling proto-molecule, have flirted with this sense of wonder that’s also tinged with horror and a frisson of the unknown. But it’s no coincidence that the movie Prometheus is the closest mirror of season 1 of Raised by Wolves, considering Ridley Scott produced the show and directed some episodes. Scott and his fellow collaborators, in a sense, found a way to preserve everything mind-bending about Prometheus while giving us a much better story.
~~the ecosystems had their own agency and purpose that neither we nor the androids can fully comprehend~~
It’s always scarier not to know what the fuck is going on in my opinion. The coolest thing you can do which Raised by Wolves did (and I think Star Wars probably did at one point early on?) is to show some giant skeleton half buried in the sand matter of factly and you look at it and you go What the fuck could that have been?
Then later if you find out what the fuck it had been it’s a lot less exciting brain-wise you go like Oh it was a big snake or whatever. Who cares.
Anyway remember a couple years ago when I talked to VanderMeer in here about Annihilation and Florida and climate change? That was pretty cool.
I know we’ve been doing the 90s again for a good while now but the bands are reaching heretofore unseen levels of 90s-remembering at the moment and I think that’s just fine. Like so:
I also would be negligent in my duties as a certified Deftones Guy if I didn’t share this great cover of My Own Summer by Rid of Me:
This by Belly Up is also real nice for fans of grungy shoegaze.
Ok that’s all for today I gotta go do whatever it is I do all day.
Find the full The Last Normal Day series PDF down below the paywall here: